President Obama was welcomed by protestors in South Africa who clearly showed their dismay
United States President Barack Obama has ended his visit to Africa that seems to have gone against all the principles of American foreign policy. When dealing with Africa, American presidents, particularly Barack Obama, have always pushed certain values – democracy, human rights observance, gender equality and the fight against corruption.
They rate African countries according to these values which they also use as criteria for establishing relations or close ties – at least publicly.
On President Obama’s just ended visit, these cherished ideals were noticeably absent from his agenda. Even his choice of countries to visit, especially in East Africa, had nothing to do with adherence to these ideals.
That should not come as a surprise since even the American media reported that Obama’s tour of a few African countries had more to do with natural resources and concern about China’s presence in Africa than the promotion of democracy and related values. That explains why he did exactly what the West has been accusing China of doing – turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, corruption and undemocratic governance.
This visit could not have been different from his first visit after he had started his first term. That time he was met with jubilation even when he delivered the usual lessons from America. This time he was met with protests in South Africa.
Tanzania, for instance, cannot be viewed as the paragon of human rights observance. In the last five years or so, religious intolerance has increased to levels where places of worship have been regularly torched or bombed and worshippers killed and injured. This has happened in the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, in Arusha – the centre of the tourist circuit and seat of various international organisations, in Zanzibar and numerous villages across the country.
Hate speech against foreigners, and even nationals abounds – not just among ordinary citizens, but the political elite as well, even in parliament.
The latest example came from none other than Tanzania’s Prime Minister Mizengo Peter Pinda who is reported to have told parliament just before Obama’s visit that government policy is to beat, beat and beat those who are seen to be troublesome. That is code for the political opposition.
The Prime Minister’s incitement to violence seems to confirm what has been happening in Tanzania. Police violence against ordinary citizens and extra-judicial killings have been reported but these have gone unpunished. People have been abducted, tortured and mutilated – reportedly at the hands of state officials, with no action taken against them.
Opposition politicians have been constantly harassed and beaten.
None of these seemed to bother Mr Obama on his visit to Tanzania. He chose to ignore them because his primary concern was not about civil treatment of political rivals, tolerance of dissent or respect for the rights of individuals and communities.
President Obama has been noted for his concern about corruption in Africa. In Tanzania, he said not a single word in admonition, friendly advice or gentle pressure. Yet Tanzania is ranked 102 in the 2012 Transparency International’s perception of corruption index – not far from Mali (105), a country that has been torn into two and has only been prevented from becoming a failed state by French intervention and now United Nations peacekeepers.
Mr Obama did not say a word of encouragement to Tanzania’s better ranked neighbours – Malawi and Zambia, both at 88, or better still, Rwanda at 50.
Overnight, concern for corruption that has been the centrepiece of American economic support for Africa disappeared. It will probably reappear when Obama is safely far away from Tanzania.
Equally absent from view was the usual insistence on economic reforms as a condition for doing business with African countries. The 2012 World Bank Doing Business report places Tanzania at 134, way below neighbours Uganda and Kenya at 120 and 121 respectively. Rwanda at number 52 is in a different league.
Yet none of these received as much as a presidential glance from Mr Obama. Instead, he carried a planeload of 500 business people to make deals with Tanzania. Of course, all eyes are on the gas, oil and huge expanses of agricultural land, not on business reforms.
America’s other yardstick for establishing close ties with African countries – gender equality and other civil liberties – also disappeared while Obama was in Tanzania. True, he was not provocative by promoting gay rights. The experience in Senegal had probably taught him to be a little more sensitive. But that learned sensitivity seems to have made him insensitive to another subject – gender equality whose promotion is usually a key element of American foreign policy.
According to the 2011 Gender Inequality Index, Tanzania is number 119 out of 146 countries measured. Three years ago the United Nations placed it at 125 out of 155 countries in the Gender-related Development Index. Clearly, Tanzania is not a leading example for the advancement of gender equality in Africa.
Sources within Tanzania say that the Tanzanian leadership was apprehensive of how Obama would treat them given their dismal record on a wide variety of indicators. That is why when it turned out that Obama looked the other way, his host was visibly pleased, like a school boy who has unexpectedly received praise from his usually stern headmaster.
Mr Kikwete was gushing in his praise of President Obama for American support. His unrestrained praise-singing bordered on the obsequious. It is an undignified attitude that he usually adopts when dealing with the powerful, especially when he is obviously let off the hook.
Mr Obama reciprocated, reeling off current and future areas of US aid to Tanzania. All the while Mr Kikwete wore a wide grin, obviously enjoying the glow from his illustrious guest.
Pleasantries aside, Obama’s just concluded visit revealed how normally cherished ideals were sacrificed for a grab on Africa’s immense natural resources. The very thought of getting hold of the continent’s riches silences all the sermons and lectures on democracy, human rights and other freedoms constantly delivered to Africans. That is how the real world works.